Endnote to ‘Privileged Guilt’

June 23, 2011 § 15 Comments

This seems to be the conclusion to the last post:

Privilege cannot be shed, and therefore guilt is an incoherent response. I mean the kind of privilege that’s actually pernicious from a left perspective, which is not simply superiority or advantage, as it tends to be caricatured. Intelligent, cultured, upper-middle-class white men are not being called out for being intelligent, cultured, or even upper-middle-class — dull-witted, undereducated, working class white men still benefit from being white and male. If they get called out, it is (or should be) because their words and actions deny or ignore the role that their whiteness, maleness, and middle-classness have played in the acquisition of material advantages that may or may not result in intelligence, competence, good looks, or any other ideal quality. That is, when they actively justify their privilege with what is unjustifiable. So it is a critique of behavior. And yet the critique is still unavoidably directed at who they are, because the value of existence is not distinct from the position one occupies in the world and what one does with it, neither of which are wholly subject to individual will. Privilege tends to conceal from its beneficiaries an existential truth that everyone else is forced to recognize over and over again. Shame at being white, male, or bourgeois isn’t any more justified than shame at being black, female, or working class, the latter three of course having their own troubled histories.

(as an aside, the corollary to this point is that identity-based pride is no less compensatory than guilt — everything depends on what they transition to; I would argue they aren’t necessary conditions for anything)

What I’m calling ‘privileged guilt’ is not only ethically incoherent, it is central to a practice, the establishment of hierarchical distinctions within privileged identities: the ‘enlightened liberal,’ the ‘radical leftist,’ the ‘race traitor,’ in contrast to the ‘ignorant racist,’ ‘falsely conscious liberal imperialist,’ ‘consumer whore,’ ‘animalistic frat boy,’ etc. All of which reaffirm the idealist distinctions leftists should be trying to undo, and narrow the scope of political importance to (surprise!) the privileged group. In this context, guilt, along with its compulsive displays of ‘awareness’ and ‘sympathy,’ is just another form of conspicuous consumption.

Sara Ahmed’s “Declarations of Whiteness” is a good place to start thinking more about this:

“…whiteness studies should involve at least a double turn: to turn towards whiteness is to turn towards and away from those bodies who have been afforded agency and mobility by such privilege. In other words, the task for white subjects would be to stay implicated in what they critique, but in turning towards their role and responsibility in these histories of racism, as histories of this present, to turn away from themselves, and towards others.”

A turn to historical responsibility that doesn’t culminate in the self is as good a definition of activism and a repudiation of privileged guilt as I’ve seen.

And this at guerilla mama medicine, an example of what I like to think of as “left anti-political correctness”: (sent to me by Avanworden):

i guess what i am saying is that in my experience if white folks want to be respectful of poc or understand where they are coming from–they dont need a workshop.  there are centuries of writing from poc that they can dive into.  there are plenty of poc in their neighborhoods and community organizations.  when white folks are ready to be anti-racist, when they are ready to turn from facing the center, to facing the margins, and stand with us.  we will be here.

they dont need to be converted or preached to.

they dont need to learn the right words to use.  or the right theory.

we dont need more of that.

and it is harmful to them to give them a bunch of new theory and rhetoric while they are still angling to get as close to the center as possible.  to get to the top of the caterpillar pile.

and antiracism theory will just be used as another means, another tactic for them to reach their goal.

This argument implies something that can serve as an example of how whiteness is not only complicated for white people. If the turn away from superficial ‘correctness’ is to be taken seriously, it would require a reciprocal effort from nonwhites, not only to move away from ‘education’ as a solution, but also critical attitudes that assume educated speech as a norm. And that is not in the power of anti-racist whites to ask. Whites can’t honestly be expected to move on from a constant fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ if the ‘right thing’ retains normative force, that is, if privileged guilt is the dominant form of white antiracism. ‘Suck it up’ or ‘deal with it’ just encourage martyrdom, claiming that forceful ‘calling out’ of either aspirational or experienced white allies is done out of ‘love’ (a defense I read somewhere) is condescending. Of course words matter — outside narrow liberal and activist circles racist rhetoric is all too common and operates precisely by disavowal. But that is also why the demands of solidarity are sometimes in conflict with the demands of critique.

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§ 15 Responses to Endnote to ‘Privileged Guilt’

  • W.Kasper says:

    Wish you didn’t link to ‘I’m Not Racist, But…’ – kind of thing I’ll waste hours scrolling through, with the morbid curiosity the internet seems to encourage.

    Three funny/horrible memories (all in education) come to mind:

    School – ‘Anti-Racist’ display by lower years on the wall. One, obviously selected by the teacher as ‘worthy’ reads: “Don’t be racist! It’s as bad as being black!” Of course, this became the ‘ironic’ refrain in response to racist comments for a year or so.

    University – A public school alumni, far more privileged than most there, says: “I don’t want to be racist or nothing, but I think black people are physically stupider than white people”. His only examples were Morrisey vs. Snoop Dogg. He also thought the Prime Minister’s name was ‘Tony Lamont’. When attacked, he got teary and defensive about the difficulties his Greek dad faced for having a difficult-to-pronounce name when building his property empire. I believe he was studying Law.

    The ‘cultural awareness’ module of a counselling course –
    After a guided tour (by a respected local historian) of slavery-associated sites, a long discourse on the black diaspora, and (disguised) Marxist critique of class/race relations, commodities, commerce and social consequences, we had to give verbal feedback at the end. A time-served English teacher in her late 50’s gushes: “He was so wonderful and interesting, I nearly forgot he was black!” Other white ladies of a similar age seemed keen to point out how ‘polite’ and (aagh) ‘dignified’ he was.

    I have too many other examples, and few are as amusing. So, a stupid question: What the fuck do we do with people like that? I often end up stunned into silence, looking like a Howard Chaykin drawing. My jaw and eyebrows started to ache years ago.

    • traxus4420 says:

      “Wish you didn’t link to ‘I’m Not Racist, But…’”

      Sorry. i really considered not doing it for those same reasons – the morbid curiosity it instills, and this response: “what the fuck do we do with people like that?” but it’s a good example of how ‘calling out’ and ‘privilege owning’ as politics can devolve into this sort of generalized hatred for a stupid, ignorant, anonymous mass of narcissists implied by facebook and other social media. that is, the point where critique meets nihilistic misanthropy. hope it didn’t distract you for too long.

  • I think I get what you are saying, but just to clarify can we take a case of brouhaha?

    Say the anglophone UScentric feminist blogosphere for a period including;

    Valenti’s book cover (slender white torso)
    Nubian’s criticism of it
    the attack on Valenti in Clinton photo by Althous
    Marcotte’s photoshopping the burqa over Valenti in reply
    bfp’s explanation of the racism of this gesture
    long brutal blogarguments moving onto feminist support for imperial aggression against Taleban-ruled Afghanistan
    Marcotte’s book, “destroy this brute” cover and startling Tarzan illustrations
    Seal Press’s yadda, it’s a joke, those are ironic idealised white explorers and ironic savage African spearchuckers getting wasted, and regarding the whiteness of the list “we don’t get submissions!” bringing to mind Daman Wayan’s line “they just couldn’t put their crack pipes down long enough to apply.”

    Just about everything happened in that series of events, every possible discursive offense, cliché, and excuse; every possible reaction, and the totality was covered – imperialism, employment discrimination, marginalisation of voices, domination of media, loving pedagogical instruction, exasperated hands upthrowing had-it-to-here-ness, some learning/concessions and apologies, some obstinacy concealed until later flowering into sigh sigh not again big deal it’s just a bookcover!/bookcontract!/whitedominatedindustry!/imperialistwar!….

    Worth noting that this did seamlessly unpeel from the outer issue, seemingly of representation only – it all began with the probably least startlingly offensive of the offensive images that were to appear, the white solipsist bookcover of Full Frontal Feminism – to the core questions of white supremacist imperialism, the right and duty of the US to civilise Afghanistan etc, to which the mythic referent of that bookcover, that inspires it and makes it intelligible iconography and savvy marketing, this ideal white woman, her liberty and virtue, her attractiveness and her value, her closeness to white male power, is indispensible, or nearly/practically so.

    A fairly large portion of defenders of Valenti'(s bookcover and Marcotte’s burqa gag were on board with statements like: “To the Men of Afghanistan . Shape up you barbarians or we will take your women away!” (I don’t exaggerate, that is verbatim or near it)

    Can’t say of course anything about causality, we have all been born into history in medias res. But there is a definite connection between the “small stuff” one is not supposed to sweat and the stuff that is as big as stuff gets.

    So – Who is choosing between solidarity and critique? This choice looks different from different positions as well, right?

    • traxus4420 says:

      hi, sorry for the slow response time…been kind of busy.

      i think with all these posts on privilege i’m trying to find the right way to affirm two things simultaneously that may just be contradictory.

      One is that, especially (but not only) in the mainstream media, discourse about any kind of privilege is a shitshow, as the valenti thing and a million other examples amply demonstrate. Critique is necessary despite being under attack from all corners.

      The other thing is that I encounter a depressing amount of white male leftist guilt in life and on the blogs I read. Lots of people have critiqued this as an overemphasis on ‘calling out’ and ‘privilege owning’ politics, some of which i linked to at the top of the last post, also alcoff, and i include the guerilla mama medicine post you sent me in this category albeit from a different angle.

      and it seems to me that this is not just a problem for white males, i.e. it can’t be entirely the responsibility of white males to deal with it. not only would that not work, but it plays into the solipsistic tendencies of privilege (‘owning’ privilege).

      and it seems to me a good first step is to acknowledge what are basically the tragic contradictions of being a white male trying to stand in solidarity with people (justly) antagonistic to whiteness and maleness. doing so while also recognizing the persistent material advantages and epistemic blind spots of privilege even among those who want to relinquish those identities shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

      i mean i think what i’m saying is almost too common-sensical to be written about, but i just don’t see much evidence that others are on the same page outside of personal interactions. it’s obviously easier for (say) a nonwhite woman to ‘belong’ in a group that defines itself against whiteness and patriarchy than a white man, even if femaleness, blackness, Asianness, etc. aren’t by definition exclusionary, just as the white man has an easier time ‘belonging’ in a patriarchal white supremacist society ‘unconsciously’ antagonistic to women and nonwhites. the wrongheaded attempt to distinguish the individual from the ‘system’ (e.g. “i and my friends are race traitors, it’s whiteness and its ideological dupes that are the problem”) follow from this. unless their involvement doesn’t matter (and i’m assuming it does) then this is a problem.

      • traxus4420 says:

        maybe what i’m getting at is that the simple fact that there is a minority of those most favored by the current social/property arrangements who are committed to their destruction suggests all by itself that there is ‘a left’ and not just a bunch of oppressed groups whose goals occasionally intersect against their oppressors. that its representatives sometimes overstate the case (the utopian left, those who prioritize a raceless, genderless notion of class over everything) doesn’t mean they’re only doing so for nefarious self-interest.

      • “maybe what i’m getting at is that the simple fact that there is a minority of those most favored by the current social/property arrangements who are committed to their destruction suggests all by itself that there is ‘a left’ and not just a bunch of oppressed groups whose goals occasionally intersect against their oppressors.”

        but even if there weren’t such a minority, there would still be a left.

        ” that its representatives sometimes overstate the case (the utopian left, those who prioritize a raceless, genderless notion of class over everything) doesn’t mean they’re only doing so for nefarious self-interest.”

        it means they are advancing liberal individualist bourgeois idealist ideology, that’s all.

        “The theory of human nature.” Is there such a thing as human nature? Of course there is. But there is only human nature in the concrete, no human nature in the abstract. In class society there is only human nature of a class character; there is no human nature above classes. We uphold the human nature of the proletariat and of the masses of the people, while the landlord and bourgeois classes uphold the human nature of their own classes, only they do not say so but make it out to be the only human nature in existence. The human nature boosted by certain petty-bourgeois intellectuals is also divorced from or opposed to the masses; what they call human nature is in essence nothing but bourgeois individualism, and so, in their eyes, proletarian human nature is contrary to human nature.’

        – Mao Zedong, Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art

        this is why this “left” is never simply advancing its idealist notion of class but does so as a way of attacking materialist understanding of class and in fact attacking the left itself concretely, the actual left majority. It really is about protecting privileged access to asset, income streams, budgets, cultural and social capital. These positions don’t appear except when there is some challenge to that privilege.

        More clarity from Alcoff:


      • at this point, those who resist challenges to white supremacy on the left are a tiny tiny tiny group, but they have a lot of assets to protect.

    • I mean, a tiny portion of a large force of white supremacist reactionaries identify themselves as left and seek to wield authority as left leadership from positions in well funded institutions, but mainly their universalism is advanced to protect their dominance of resources in culture industry.

      These views have no currency at all in left milieus where there are no such resources at stake.

      • traxus4420 says:

        “but even if there weren’t such a minority, there would still be a left.”

        well of course, but you could say the same thing about any of the other minorities on the left too, or even the majorities (maybe except ‘the working class’ but then ‘left’ would just mean something else). my assumption wasn’t that this minority is logically necessary but that it’s beneficial and therefore worthy of basic respect.

        and alcoff also says this: So here is the predicament: we must tell the full story of white racism in all its complexity, and this complexity cannot be fully resolved through a class analysis that sequesters the guilty as only among the rich. Yet facing the reality of whites’ moral culpability threatens their very ability to be moral today, because it threatens their ability to imagine themselves as having a socially coherent relation to a past and a future toward which anyone could feel an attachment.

        “they are advancing liberal individualist bourgeois idealist ideology, that’s all” — ok, but on the one hand i’m talking about their motives. why they advance these ideas that in other contexts they recognize as wrong. and i think that has to do with what whiteness and maleness mean now after the successful ideological attacks of the ’60s and ’70s. and on the other i’m talking about the idea of a unified left, which isn’t only the dream of the (neo-)utopians.

      • yes it’s not only the dream of the neo-utopians – they are trying to fuck it up really by refusing to take a place of equality and demanding to be returned to domination. they reject everything that has been designed to rectify injustices and include them in solidarity.

        that is, the neo-utopians – not white people;, not white men, but this minority who don’t want to participate in a collective struggle with others (women, poc) on equal terms, but want to command a following.

      • ” one hand i’m talking about their motives”

        since they aren’t digitally reproduced from a master, we can assume their motives are as diverse and personal as any other group.

        the neo-utopîans denigrate others, they try to restore a white supremacist history, they try to reinstate Platonic hierarchies and the silly and creepy dualism of matter/spirit female/male, they try to reverse the advances made in historiography and the human sciences by critical race theory, feminism, etc. Ridicule is the favoured weapon of trying to restore the hierarchy in culture.

        alcoff is not apologising for this minority. she’s talking about white people , but there isn’t really a dearth of lefty history for white people to attach to – its vocally celebrated and merchandised aggressively! Really – look at the coffee cups! the t shirts! the hammer and sickle memorabilia!

        white people really aren’t as deprived of traditions to join and claim as many of us like to complain. that people have to join in other ways than “white pride” in “western civ” and “european judeochristian legacy” is not such a hardship. White male victimology is aggressively promoted now so even those who hold the msm at arm’s length can tend to exaggerate the damage to them emotionally that feminism and anti-imperialism does. And perhaps the self hatred problem Losurdo diagnoses – communist evil stalin shame shame – feeds this as well; white male bourgeois leftists feeling they want to moralise in a way that requires constantly slamming of european communist history, but want then to shift the blame for the defeats onto others than those with whom they identify – others than themselves. It’s natural for walter benn michaels to discover he himself hasn’t failed, those he identifies with haven’t failed, but feminists have not only failed to overthrow capital but have prevented white male leftists from doing so. It’s a way to manage the vilification of the european communist history, perhaps,; but preserve a white identity politics that designates the category to which the deplored villains and odious failures belong still the most advanced and equipped to lead. perhaps.

  • w.Kasper says:

    It’s all about the packaging. Those pseudo-events you listed packaged nicely. If you don’t fit the package, then you’re too close to the crackpipe for comfort. Then you’re not even ‘the voter’ or ‘the taxpayer’. How could they be? They can’t even appreciate irony when you offer it to them.

  • W.Kasper says:

    Perhaps not nefarious self-interest, but it can often become a kind of proud ignorance, despite access they may have to materials proving otherwise. Its distorted mirror image is in those facebook idiots. The idealist class identity (uber alles) can just result in another weapon for whiteness. The unemployed white farm worker has a lot less privilege than Michelle Obama, but a lot of that ‘idealism’ can lead him to mistake (poor) whiteness and maleness for ‘inherent’ class-consciousness. That certainly seems to be encouraged in the UK at the moment. My problem is with how the dividing lines are drawn. The proudly ignorant may have 10% truth in what they say or feel, but conveniently dismiss the other 90% they fail to contemplate. Anecdote and personal/community history can be utilised for radical ends, but also deeply reactionary ones too (“my son has a degree but can’t find a job because he’s white” – “why are gays complaining? They tend to earn more.” etc.).

    I’m not big on political ‘guilt’ – but maybe the keywords should be those corny terms empathy and understanding? It may be impossible to know how the ‘other’ feels, but surely the point is to listen, learn and adjust accordingly? And encourage your peers to do the same? Or has western narcissism become so chronic, that to question one’s position would be too much of an intellectual challenge? Those examples of idiocy I listed above were unreflective forms of narcissism, really. Hostility to ‘political correctness’ or even the sillier kinds of ‘identity politics’ (smoker’s pressure groups, obesity as oppressed minority etc) seems to feed off an a priori kind of narcissism, so entrenched as to be invisible to its perpetrators.

    Hope I’m making sense – it’s a subject I find hard to articulate at times.

  • W.Kasper says:

    “White male victimology is aggressively promoted now so even those who hold the msm at arm’s length can tend to exaggerate the damage to them emotionally that feminism and anti-imperialism does. ”

    It’s a form of scorched-earth therapy. They’ll only ‘marginalise’ themselves further with this approach, despite any delusions of grandeur. With very few exceptions, they lack the power, discipline or consistency to be as influential as they believe they can be (no war vets or effective orators here – just clerks nodding at each other). I expect any Actual Existing Left will carry on regardless, while those you mention muddle their aims ever further in relation to MSM (their primary focus), and their rather ‘teflon’ irrelevance. Fear and loathing will back them into their own corner soon enough.

  • […] of fighting back, however beneficial it might be for personal wellbeing. I’ve made comments on this blog in favor of a greater sense of reciprocity and self-awareness when leftists criticize each other, […]

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